This month, Hawaiian Airlines returned to the tiny Kapalua West Maui Airport (airport code: JHM) after a nearly 25-year absence with 2 daily flights to Honolulu and one to Kahului. With a short 3,000 foot runway, it was no easy task getting back into the airport, but it was one that Hawaiian is betting will have been worth the effort. (Anyone who has done the drive in traffic between Kahului and Lahaina or the resort areas of Ka’anapali and Kapalua knows what I mean.) I spoke with Peter Ingram, EVP and Chief Commercial Officer as well as Alison Croyle, Director of External Communications, about the airline’s long journey back.
Cranky Flier: Hawaiian’s ties to West Maui are obviously very close considering you built the airport, right?
Peter Ingram, EVP and Chief Commercial Officer, Hawaiian Airlines: Yeah, we did build it. Thirty years ago our chairman and CEO was a guy name John Magoon, and Mr Magoon commissioned the building of the airport. [Editor’s note: That’s where the JHM airport code came from.] Hawaiian Airlines actually owned the airport before later selling it to the State Department of Transportation that today runs all the airports in the state of Hawai’i.
Cranky: With this particular airport, I assume it was built primarily for Ka’anapali, for the resort area. Or was it built for another industry reason, for pineapples or something?
Peter: I think it was built for passenger transportation. Ka’anapali is the resort area there, but frankly, the city that has longer standing in that area is Lahaina. Lahaina has been an important city, it was a state capital before Honolulu was, so Lahaina is a traditional population center and fishing village.
Cranky: So it was built for the locals. Not for tourism?
Peter: I think both, really.
Cranky: You used to fly there, I think, what was it with Dash-7s way back in the day? When did you pull out?
Peter: The Dash-7 was the original aircraft. One of the bits of trivia we learned when we were getting ready for the relaunch is that Ken Rewick, who is our current VP of Flight Operations, was actually a pilot on the inaugural flight 30 years before we relaunched. But we flew there from ’87 until ’93. I believe at that point we retired the Dash-7s and didn’t have the appropriate aircraft for what is a relatively short runway. The Dash-7 is a four engine turboprop with very good short field performance.
Alison: We closed the airport in
’93 and the Dash 7 retired in the following year. [Update: I received a note from Alison that service actually ended in 1994 when the aircraft was retired.]
Cranky: You’re being modest saying this is a “relatively short runway.” I went in there on an IslandAir Dash 8 many years ago. That is an incredibly short runway. Presumably that’s been the issue.
Cranky: Eventually when you started ‘Ohana, I assume you saw that as the opportunity to get in there. You were never going to get a 717 in there but the ATR you thought could have been a possibility. But it wasn’t that simple, right?
Peter: Right. It wasn’t that simple. The ATR-42 that flies in our ‘Ohana by Hawaiian operation is a good short-runway performance airplane. Even with the ATR characteristics, there were a couple of things we needed to do to return service to West Maui. One is we won’t fly it with a full passenger load. The other thing we needed to do to operate the ATR into that airport reliably and safely [was] we had to design an approach to maximize the use of the runway. That effectively is a steep approach that you have to do on a precision basis. We commissioned the installation of a PAPI, precision approach path indicator, which essentially for a layman like me is a lighting system that ensures the pilots that they’re on the right flight line to approach the runway on a precision basis so you can operate safely and stop safely.
[Editor’s Note: the photo below is not of Kapalua, but it demonstrates a PAPI]
Cranky: Let me go back for a second. How many passengers to expect to be able to carry normally?
Peter: About 35. [Editor’s Note: There are 48 seats on the airplane.]
Cranky: Now, back to the operational change, so why was that necessary? A Dash-8 was able to fly in there, but an ATR can’t?
Peter: It’s just the operating characteristics of the airplane with the weight and the landing speed. It’s a matter of the physics of flight and the physics of stopping.
Cranky: So the PAPI will presumably mean you’ll get the wheels on the runway quicker.
Peter: Correct, and you notice it. I noticed it on the inaugural and I’ve noticed it on smaller aircraft in the past. One of the things you notice when you land on the reef runway in Honolulu… it’s an incredibly long runway. You notice as you look out your window, you fly over an awful lot of runway before they set the airplane down. On this runway, with the precision approach, we’re able to effectively land the airplane a little earlier on the runway surface.
Cranky: So were there other modifications or was that the big one?
Peter: No, that was the modification, putting the PAPI in. In terms of the airplane, there were no modifications to the airplane. There is some extra training that the pilots go through specifically for this approach in this airport and that’s something you see… we don’t have a lot in our network, but if you think about flying into airports at ski resorts and some of the airports in Latin America where there’s specific training for a specific airfield…. We’ve worked with Empire which is the operator of the ‘Ohana by Hawaiian flights and their FAA representative on a training program that’s specific to this airport. That’s the other thing we’ve done operationally.
Cranky: What are the tolerances on this? The weather doesn’t change all that often, but if the Kona winds kick up, does that mean you have to scrub the flight or do you have a lot of flexibility in being able to operate?
Peter: Like any flight, the big issues are wind speed and direction and rain. In fact, on the inaugural day we had rain and we can have payload reductions that might reduce the number of passengers. This is not unique to JHM. In an airport like Lana’i that also has a short runway, if we have stormy weather it is more prone than the rest of our network to weather-related disruptions. The good news on that is we can mitigate that. One is the weather in Hawai’i is more often than not pretty accommodating. So we don’t expect a lot of those challenges. And when we do have them, we have more than 30 roundtrips a day at Kahului airport just across the way. So if we did have a couple of days of pretty bad weather, we could accommodate those passengers, with some degree of inconvenience, by taking them out of the other airport in Maui.
Cranky: It just started, so how have bookings been so far?
Peter: Bookings are going fine. We had some delays in getting the flights on sale because we were working through some of the final preparations of getting ready. One of the things that had to change operationally was returning TSA to the airport because there was no service with aircraft above 19 seats before we returned. So we’re really just getting into the flow of service now. One of the things we’re talking about with our sales team both domestically and internationally is making people aware that this option is available again. For people who are staying on the west side of Maui, there is a more convenient way to get there.
Cranky: Is that something that you’ve done on your website? Showing alternate options if they search Kahului?
Peter: We haven’t made specific changes to the website. I think some of it is more awareness, because we really want to target it to people who are staying at particular resorts. And we don’t have the technology today to understand the travel plans of all our guests. If you go to our website, you can see the map, where the airports are on the island. With international, where a lot more of sales goes through third-party channels, and a lot of times people are buying their travel as part of a package that includes accommodations, I think that awareness will get out there. One of the other things is that it’s not just hotels. It’s timeshares, other accommodations that people will return to year after year. The awareness will build over time particularly among repeat travelers.
Cranky: That makes sense. And you don’t have many seats to fill anyway. I suppose you have the ability to add more capacity if you want to, right?
Peter: I think we will add capacity over time. The schedule we’ve got out there today is 2 roundtrips to Honolulu and 1 at the beginning of that pattern from [Kahului] and at the end of that pattern into [Kahului] which brings that airplane back into our network of flying. That works well for connecting to our midday bank. What that schedule doesn’t work as well for is the local or day-trip traveler. If you just want to go back-and-forth to Honolulu, you don’t have much time between that first arrival into Honolulu and last departure back. I think that’s something we’re continuing to look at and you can expect to see probably more flights in our schedule at some point in the not-too-distant future to give some different flight combination options.
Cranky: I was going to ask you about that flight to Kahului. That’s just an aircraft routing thing, right? Nobody is actually taking that flight?
Peter: *laughs* Well, Alison and I took it last week.
Cranky: Right, but there’s nobody PAYING to take that flight.
Peter: It is pretty limited. It’s really about aircraft routing. I think you may see because that airplane will go on to the Big Island that it’s a way to get from JHM to the Big Island, but the ideal pattern is to get it back and forth to Honolulu.
Thanks to Hawaiian for shedding light on the long journey back. If anyone flies Hawaiian in there soon, leave a comment about whether you noticed a different kind of approach.